Image of an Unknown Young Woman, Gate Theatre

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What’s in an image?

The power and potential deceptiveness of the image has become something of a recurring theatrical theme over the last few years. The most interesting thing by far about Chimerica was its ambivalent relationship with the iconic photograph at its heart, set against the backdrop of an image-saturated world. It followed The Witness, a play in which an image comes back to haunt the man who captured it, and was followed in turn by The Body of an American, which again revolves around the act of witnessing and the images that come to stand for entire conflicts.

Now, in Elinor Cook’s new play Image of an Unknown Young Woman, one small snippet of video footage both sparks and stands for a whole revolutionary movement. A woman – a young, beautiful woman – a young, beautiful woman wearing an eye-catching yellow dress – is shot during a protest. Video images of this act of brutality go viral, concentrating international media attention on a nation whose sufferings had previously been ignored. One pretty girl, one instantly iconic snapshot, does more than hundreds of deaths.

Cook’s revolution unravels in an unspecified country under an unspecified oppressive regime. While that device of “unspecified country” (especially when “Middle Eastern” or, as was the case a couple of decades ago, “Eastern European” is nestled in the middle) can often carry a whiff of racism, here the vagueness feels justified for a change. Although the play has echoes of various protests and revolutions across the world in recent years, it feels as though it could just as easily be happening on the streets of a Western city. The point is both closeness and distance – as hammered home by the parallel narrative of a wealthy Londoner’s frustrated desire to help.

In fact, Image of an Unknown Woman is constructed from a series of parallel narratives, all running along neighbouring tracks but – with one exception – never quite meeting. Ali (Ashley Zhangazha) and his girlfriend Layla (Anjana Vasan) deal with the fallout from uploading the video that sparks the uprising; lonely, rage-filled Candace (Susan Brown) confronts an ethical dilemma as she gets tangled up with a charity – fronted by Nia (Wendy Kweh), an activist who has escaped the regime under attack – that is not what it seems; and one woman (Eileen Walsh) simply picks her way through the carnage in search of her missing mother. Running around and between them is the three-strong chorus (Oliver Birch, Emilie Patry and Isaac Ssebandeke), taking on the murky, shape-shifting roles of leaders, protestors and commentators.

When I spoke to Cook about the play, she uncomfortably described “the girl in the yellow dress” – as the nameless subject of the video becomes known – as a sort of brand. As grotesque as the idea may be, it speaks powerfully to what captures the collective imagination in an information-flooded, fiercely consumerist age. People need a catchy slogan, a bitesize backstory, a striking image. This is also an idea that Christopher Haydon’s production and Fly Davis’ design have latched onto. With the audience configured in traverse, sliced down the middle by a catwalk-like stage, the entire space of the Gate’s auditorium is decked out in hazard-tape black and yellow. Aside from the costumes, the yellow of the young girl’s dress – and subsequently of the popular protest movement – is the only colour permitted to pierce the gloom. Armbands, balloons and scattered sheets of paper are all in keeping with the revolutionary “brand”.

The whole thing is as stylish and carefully coherent as the design, remaining immaculately consistent in its concept even as it evokes the noise and chaos of revolution. On the one hand, the pleasing sharpness of the aesthetic feels a little obscene, as if cleaning up the mess and blood of violent conflict into something almost pretty. Yet for that very reason it’s a brilliant artistic choice. This is what we as observers clutch at, what catches our attention: narratives that knit together, images that are neatly ideological, colours as bright and as vivid and as far away from those troublesome shades of grey as possible.

Haydon’s production is also effortlessly, unshowily diverse in its casting, both reinforcing the everywhere-and-nowhere quality of the play’s unspecified setting and actually looking something like the world beyond the Gate’s walls. Seeing Image of an Unknown Woman on the same day as reading Stephen Berkoff’s comments about the supposed “reverse racism” of ring-fencing the role of Othello for black actors, I was doubly aware of the importance of such a simple act. Sure, let’s have conversations about theatrical representation, but those conversations can’t be stripped of context. Until there’s real representation at all levels – until all theatre reflects the make-up of the UK population as a matter of course – any suggestion that the few roles reserved for BAME performers should be up for grabs for their already over-represented white counterparts smacks either of wilful ignorance or veiled prejudice (and that’s before we even consider the cultural history of blackface and all its racist connotations).

Representation is equally a concern for the play itself, which interrogates not just the impact that images gone viral can achieve today, but also the nature of the images that go viral in the first place. It’s no coincidence that the emblem of this revolution is young, female, attractive, blonde. As Nia puts it, this is an image of violence that is “palatable”, clear-cut – even titillating, as hinted at in the frenzied social media hubbub that opens the play. It’s a stark illustration that only some representations of suffering provoke a response and certain lives continue to be valued over others (as countless news stories in just the past few months alone have demonstrated). Indictments of twenty-first-century society don’t come much bleaker than that.

Photo: Iona Firouzabadi.

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